CRI in the News | Keynote Address at CRI Conference

Sociologist: Income Levels of Mariel Migrants Lower than Earlier Cuban Exiles

By Juan O. Tamayo
The Miami Herald

Cubans who arrived in the United States during and after the Mariel boatlift have lower income levels than older migrants from the island and now rank close to other Latin American arrivals, according to an expert on the Cuban Diaspora.

"From the elite of the Hispanic migration … (Cubans) have become just another Latin American group," Alejandro Portes said Thursday during a conference hosted by the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University.

The three-day conference, the ninth sponsored by the CRI and usually held every two years, drew about 250 participants to discuss Cuba migration and how it affects issues such as music, literature and U.S. policy.

Portes said the initial waves of Cubans who came to the United States after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 arrived with generally good business skills and educations and were welcomed by the U.S. government and people.

They became the highly successful migrants sometimes called the golden exile, he said, because they helped each other and could receive so-called "character loans"—bank loans issued without collateral and based solely on the recipient's reputation.

Such loans are a thing of the past, said Portes, a sociologist at Princeton and the University of Miami who has written extensively about the waves of Cuban migrations before and after the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

Reports that criminals and other "undesirables" were among the 125,000 Cubans who arrived on the boatlift also led to these arrivals losing the support of the U.S. government, the U.S. population and even earlier arrivals, Portes said.

Although Mariel and later arrivals are more entrepreneurial than migrants from most other nations—greater Miami has more Hispanic businesses than Los Angeles—they have not been as successful as the earlier Cuban arrivals, he said.

They arrived with few real business skills and perhaps weak overall educations, Portes noted, because the island's educational system has deteriorated significantly in recent decades, especially after the Soviet Union collapsed and ended its massive subsidies.

Enterprises established by the more recent arrivals also may lack sufficient capital, the sociologist said, because financing is tighter now and these migrants tend to send more cash and other types of assistance to their families and friends on the island.

Recent arrivals tend to have income levels far below those of earlier Cuban migrants, Portes said. In 1999, the average income for post-Mariel arrivals was $27,000, he added, about the same as other Latin American migrants.

And while the children of early migrants were more likely to attend private schools, the children of the later arrivals were more likely to attend public schools at a time when the quality of U.S. public education has been dropping.

As young adults, those children also were more likely to have lower incomes and school graduation rates, higher number of children and higher rates of incarceration, he said. Among the children of Mariel and post-Mariel arrivals, one in 10 has been incarcerated, Portes added.

The more recent Cuban arrivals, he said, "are not statistically very different from other Latin American migrants."

Portes also noted that the Cuban government's decision to ease restrictions on travel abroad as of Jan. 14 has changed its migration system, from "a one-way escape" designed to lower domestic opposition, toward "more of a two-way street."

"Intentionally or not," he added, the new system means the Cuban government is treating the more recent migrants as "a reliable financial resource" that can send cash to the island and reduce the political influence of the older exiles.

The Cuban Research Institute conference continues Friday with a 2 p.m. keynote panel on the effects of Raúl Castro's economic reforms chaired by economists Carmelo Mesa Lago and Jorge Pérez López. A dozen more panels are scheduled Saturday.